Brad Pitt anything but soft in gangster flick
Killing Them Softly
Three stars (out of four)
This is the dead land
This is cactus land
— T. S. Eliot, The Hollow Men
They are indeed empty vessels, these drained gangsters of Andrew Dominik’s Killing Them Softly.
They’re guys who would steal a waiter’s $1 tip, and for whom $1,000 might as well be $1 million. They drink to excess and whore around, but achieve little satisfaction from either escape.
They have vacant eyes, zombie hearts and zero conscience. They will pull a trigger, smash a face or betray a pal, but there’s no serious intent. There’s just opportunity, money and, above all, business.
Business has been bad lately. It’s the fall of 2008 in post-Katrina New Orleans, and despite the constant chatter about “the American promise” from presidential candidate Barack Obama, few people are dreaming big.
It’s a time of hesitation, doubt and fear. Gangsters drive around in 40-year-old gas guzzlers and walk tiny dogs. They’re feeling the pinch as keenly as the bankers who have driven the economy into the dirt.
“This country is ----ed, I’m telling you,” says mob hit man Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt), who is disgusted by what he sees. He still possesses a modicum of self-respect, but it’s started to fade. He has to clean up the mess of incompetent dirty work.
He sees idiots like Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) doing idiotic things like knocking over a backroom poker game between members of the mob. The game is run by another idiot, Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta), who previously arranged to have another of his mob games robbed and bragged about it. Guess who is going to be blamed for this one?
There are elements of Scorsese’s grime and Tarantino’s wit in Killing Them Softly, and the story source is the 1974 novel Cogan’s Game by George V. Higgins.
But writer/director Dominik has his own methods. He’s brilliant at using atmosphere and attitude to set up a scene, as he also showed in Chopper and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.
This is a deeply cynical movie, with not much to say but a lot to feel. Everything sinks into your bones, like the watered-down colours of cinematographer Greig Fraser’s palette. Like the deep funk of Pitt’s disillusioned Cogan. Like the economic meltdown that siphons wallets and then souls.
Obama’s talk of “hope” and “change” blares from every blurry barroom TV screen, as well as George W. Bush’s final excuses, but nobody here is feeling energized.
There’s an election coming, but also a reckoning: Johnny Cash’s apocalyptic The Man Comes Around plays on the soundtrack, and that man isn’t Jesus, it’s Cogan.
He’s been hired to settle a few scores regarding the poker-game robbery. He gives the film’s title meaning as he describes his technique: “I like to kill them softly, from a distance. Not close enough for feelings.”
But he’s feeling something: frustration. His fellow enforcer (James Gandolfini), whom he’s summoned to town for assistance, seems more interested in getting smashed and laid.
Cogan’s mob contact Driver (Richard Jenkins) keeps sweating the details of the planned hits, and also the cost (“Fly coach”).
Bullets will eventually fly and blood will flow. The victims will hardly have time to feel pain.
It’s nothing new, but it’s smartly done, with slow-motion scenes mirroring the blurred states of mind.
“Crime is the business of America,” Cogan says, but we’ve already noted that business ain’t good.
Killing Them Softly, however, is very good.
Peter Howell is a syndicated Toronto Star movie critic.